Peat is an important part of the ecosystem here in the UK, and since we’ve become a nation of such keen gardeners our supplies have been dwindling. Peat provides a home for all kinds of creatures from dragonflies to pheasants, and as a 1 cm layer takes around 10 years to form it is highly unsustainable.
Take a look at our guide to growing a wildlife garden.
Look at the small print
Even bags of compost that are labelled ‘organic’ can contain up to 100% peat, but a good product should explain exactly what it contains. Take a moment to read the label and you can rest assured that you won’t be putting peat amongst the peonies (which isn’t particularly good for them, anyway).
This is made from grass clippings, leaves, and prunings given to recycling centres and turned into compost. Some of the peat-free compost mixes available contain recycled green waste, and the raw materials will have been saved from becoming landfill. Be careful, as green waste composts can vary quite drastically in their quality and pH. Try some locally made compost and see what works.
You can always make your own green waste compost, but remember that anything you take from your compost heap will be too rich and weedy for seed-sowing although it can be used with other ingredients for potting. Try using one part loam, one part leafmould, and one part green waste from the compost heap or bin. When working with a fairly modest compost heap, you’ll be best off digging the compost into the beds as a soil improver. Alternatively, use compost to fill containers to two-thirds full, and top up with bought peat-free compost.
Usually made from pine trees as a by-product of timber production, this is often used to add bulk to peat-free multipurpose compost. When used alone, it makes a good improver for poor or heavy soil. Chunkier chipped bark also makes good weed-suppressing mulch. Composted bark can keep root diseases at bay, but it can also take nitrogen from the plants as it rots down, although this shouldn’t happen if it is properly composted and mixed with a well-balanced multipurpose compost.
The closest product to peat in regards to its performance in the pot, coir is a by-product of the coconut industry in Sri Lanka and India. It’s perfect for adding bulk, aerating the mix, and holding water. The surface can dry out quickly, but this doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t any water below. Coir is great for seed sowing and cutting mixes, and it is used in a lot of peat-free multipurpose products. Whilst coir is imported, it comes in a dry and compressed form, and we currently import over half of the peat used in the UK.
This newer alternative is made from wood chips treated under high pressure steam to separate them out into a lightweight product for compost mixes. It holds nutrients and water very well.